Do you have a mission statement for your family?
Every successful business has a mission statement that carefully articulates the company’s central vision and primary objectives. Yet the mission statement does not exist simply to be placed in an employee manual or on a plaque in the conference room. It exists to set the parameters for the structures and methodologies the company employs in pursuit of that mission.
In a similar way, to determine what is best for our children, we need to begin with consideration of our end goal. Every family needs a mission statement.
All Christian parents want to rear children who trust Christ for their salvation and live lives committed to him. Every church wants to disciple children who grow to be faithful servants of Christ. Yet to establish the best way to accomplish these goals, we need to have a sound biblical picture of what we are trying to accomplish.
Perhaps the best place to start is with the core confession of faith God gave to his people in the Old Testament. Known as the Shema, from the first word of the confession in Hebrew—“Hear”—this statement encapsulates a valuable model for what it means to be a true follower of God:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.(Deut. 6:4–6)
To Know God
The Jewish confession begins with a requirement to believe certain things. The first of these affirmations is that the Lord, the God of Scripture, is our God. We believe in him, we affirm him as our God, and we trust in him. But then Moses adds an additional qualification. Not only is the Lord our God, he is the only God. There is one and only one true and living God. In other words, only one being in the entire universe deserves to be worshiped. The one true God is the Lord, the God of the Bible.
At the core of our desire for our children is that they truly know this. We want them to know God, to believe in him, and to trust him. We want them to know that he created them and what he has done throughout history. We want them to know he requires perfect obedience and does not tolerate sin. This very desire informs our intent to give them biblical teaching so they can understand truth about God.
The New Testament, of course, adds the complete revelation essential to salvation, and that is that Jesus Christ is “the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through [him]” (John 14:6). Jesus is both God and man, and thus knowing him is the only way to truly know God. Our children need to be taught that since sin deserves everlasting judgment and prevents us from having fellowship with God, they must come to God through Christ, who died to pay the penalty that sin deserves. We need to teach them that those who repent of their sins and trust in Christ alone for their salvation will be forgiven of their sin and given everlasting life.
This is why the Word of God must be prominent in the lives of our children from the earliest of ages. This was true of Timothy, to whom Paul says, “From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). Timothy’s grandmother and mother had faithfully communicated truth about God from the Scriptures to him as a child (1:5).
Children need regular biblical teaching just like adults do, and the fact is that children can often grasp more truth than we give them credit for. Certainly some deeper theological truths may be challenging for a child to comprehend, but we must teach the core truths of Scripture to our children from the earliest ages so they will come to truly know God.
To Obey God
The immediate context of the Jewish confession in Deuteronomy 6 is the giving of the law to the people of Israel, the “statutes and the rules” God gave to Moses. God required certain things of his people, and their adherence to those requirements resulted in either blessing or curse. In verse 3, Moses told them to be careful to obey these things. God had said in Deuteronomy 28:1, “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.” “But,” he warned them, “if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (v. 15).
Likewise, we want our children to obey God. We must demonstrate for them what it means to live for Christ, to be holy, to forsake sin, and to live righteously. We know that a life of sin displeases the Lord and even for a Christian will result in painful consequences. We need to teach our children that “the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Heb. 12:6) and blessings come to those who do what they were called to do (1 Peter 3:9).
From the time our children were old enough to speak, my wife and I taught them to answer two questions about their behavior. “What does obedience bring?” we would ask.
“Blessing,” they responded.
“What does disobedience bring?”
Children need to learn that actions have consequences.
Once again, the best way to help our children live in obedience to God is to give them his Word. No child is too young for regular exposure to the Scriptures.
To Love God
Knowing and even believing information about God is not enough, however. The central command of the Jewish confession, cited by Jesus himself as the greatest commandment, is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:28–30).
Loving God is at the center of what it means to truly know God. Plenty of people know and even believe facts about God. “Even the demons believe—and shudder!” James tells us (2:19). What differentiates a person who simply knows about God and one who truly knows God is love for him.
Furthermore, obedience to God comes not simply through knowing the right information, it flows from knowing and loving God. Scripture teaches that the fruit of true knowledge of God and love for him is obedience to his commands. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15), and “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (15:14).
Recognition that our heart’s fundamental orientation—our affections—are central to a true relationship with God should significantly impact what we desire in terms of our children’s spiritual formation. We should want them to know and obey God, and for this to happen, we need to make sure they truly love God.
These three together—to know God, to love God, and to obey God—are the essence of what it means to worship God. This Jewish confession of faith is a call to worship the one true and living God exclusively with the entirety of a person’s mind (beliefs), will (obedience), and affections (love).
In other words, the ultimate goal for all God’s people is that they will worship.
The Responsibility of Parents
This core goal of worship is true, of course, for all disciples of Christ, not just children. But notice what Moses tells the people right after he has given them this core confession:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.(Deut. 6:6–9)
God commanded his people to fervently pass on to their children this central tenet of their covenantal relationship with God, including right beliefs about God, an all-pervasive love for him, and a life of obedience to his commands. This doesn’t happen without intentional planning. It requires more than just periodic times of formal instruction. To rear children to know God, love God, and obey God, parents—and indeed the whole community of God’s people—must make these emphases a pervasive part of everyday life.
In the New Testament, the principal command given to parents is this: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). This command is not given to pastors, Sunday school teachers, or youth workers—it’s given to parents. God expects that parents will give careful attention to rearing their children to know God, love him, and obey him—to worship.
The Responsibility of the Whole Community
God gives these responsibilities toward children first and foremost to parents, but Christian parents should not attempt to do this on their own. Rather, Christian parents need a community of other Christians to help with the discipleship of their children. This does not mean relegating their God-ordained responsibility to pastors or “expert” teachers; it means that parents successfully disciple their children best within the context of the local church.
Titus specifically discusses how this kind of discipleship takes place in community—the local church. Older men should teach the younger men, and older women should train the younger women and children (Titus 2:2–6). This is how Christ designed his church: a diverse body of believers gifted with a variety of abilities so that the whole community is encouraged and built up “to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
Where this kind of discipleship in Christian community happens best is in the central worship gathering of the church. I do not personally believe it is always wrong to have age-specific teaching times on occasion, but discipling children into mature worshipers happens best in intergenerational corporate worship. In corporate worship, children encounter God as his Word is read and taught, thereby coming to know him. In the church’s worship, children’s hearts are oriented toward God as they witness their parents and others in the congregation responding to God’s Word with their hearts through prayer and song. Here, they can grow in spiritual maturity and obedience to Christ’s commands through repeated exposure to faithful, mature Christians.
Some parents might want their children to be with them in the main worship service instead of separate meetings because they don’t want anyone else influencing their children. The biblical picture is exactly opposite: I want my children with me in corporate worship because the best way for them to grow in Christian maturity is for them to regularly be among other mature Christian adults as they worship their holy God.
Note: This post was an excerpt from Scott Aniol’s book Let the Little Children Come: Family Worship on Sunday, and the Other Six Days, Too.